'You Can’t See What I Can See': Some Thoughts on Campuses and Willful Blindness

BY: KYLE DARGAN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF LITERATURE

  Photo provided by Kyle Dargan

Photo provided by Kyle Dargan

At the beginning of my first year as an undergraduate transfer student at the University of Virginia, I sat in one of many white plastic folding chairs lined in rows before the Rotunda — the white-domed, Pantheon-inspired former library that defines the Academic Village and Lawn, the original core of Mr. Jefferson's university. Our orientation group was instructed to reach beneath our chairs to find a nickel. What it was intended to symbolize I cannot remember. Jefferson's investment in our futures?

Part of the fuzziness is just the way memory tarnishes over time, but it can also be attributed to the fact that I was, in that moment, thinking more about the bodies of enslaved Africans buried beneath the Grounds of the university they were forced to build and maintain. Could I ever be comfortable here? Is my or other African American students' enrollment here a victory of any sort? I still do not have answers to those questions, but I did create a number of invaluable friendships and memories during my time in Charlottesville, and I still carry them with me. In some way, on my own terms, the University of Virginia campus became sacred to me. My family's blood is there in the form of tuition, and my blood is there in the form of work.

I cannot, and never expect to, feel the same way about American University.

As a faculty member, I simply do not experience the same sense of ownership of this campus as I did with U.Va. as a student. And sadly that means I sometimes mentally check out from the social strife on campus. Not that I do not care, but I know—as an employee as opposed to a "customer" (do note, students, that that is how you are thought of, how you are spoken about)—the university has little incentive to listen to me. Nevertheless, last semester when I had lunch with the Provost, who has a most difficult job, I definitely took the time to explain to him, in part, why so many African American students on campus were upset. It is something that is very clear when you are "blk." 

Instances of homophobia or anti-Semitism on campus are met, if not anticipated, with a strong communication effort. Yet when racial antagonism—as language or as symbol—is directed at African American students, the university's response and messaging seem comparatively lethargic. And, conscious or not, that is an expression of values—or a failure to value to be more specific. At this point in my career in higher education, I don't have much faith in university administrations. They haven't given me many reasons to hold out hope. So when these oversights happen, I am not invested enough in the possibility of redress to have my feelings hurt. It all just drips into that wide, deep bucket of— it is what it is.

  Photo by Alexis Arnold

Photo by Alexis Arnold

That sentiment also bled over into my views of the actual transgressions and the impact they may be having on students. Bananas in nooses and on doors? Amateurish—and a sign of fear on the perpetrators’ part. Nothing to be afraid of. Though I did not, I was tempted at the time to say, "These are spectacles of distraction. If students want to be mad or hurt, they should feel that way about the institutional and structural racism and indifference that is not as overt on campus."

But there is a way that compassion sneaks up on us. And looking back from this current passage in history, I am very glad I held my tongue and just observed the aftermath (and watched proudly, though, as the students blocked Bender Arena traffic—using and risking their bodies to add leverage to their demands and strategically extend their grief to other previously indifferent). I am glad because as I watched a horde of torch-bearing "white" supremacists march all over spaces where I have so many meaningful memories as a U.Va. graduate, the hurt and the anger I felt in response was akin to what I imagine blk students here at AU felt upon being threatened, ridiculed and de-humanized by various racist actors.

I am not suggesting I needed to see my alma mater besieged with "white" supremacists to understand the plight of AU’s students. I know that from speaking with students or merely existing as a blk person in this country. But the urgency I felt when it came to correcting what went wrong at U.Va. allowed me to relate, emotionally, to the urgency AU students have responded with over the past few years. I started writing letters to friends and others in the alumni network urging them to stop giving money to the university until this failure of responsibility and expression of values (allowing “white” supremacists on campus while students were in residence) was addressed and atoned for. If I know one thing, having spent the last 18 years of my life associated with universities, it is that they understand financial pressure—be it through lawsuits or boycotts.

  Photo by Lauren Lumpkin

Photo by Lauren Lumpkin

To reiterate, I understand—sadly—a lot of what non-“white” students endure at AU. I try to have that compassion present in my teaching and my general presence on campus. I and many—I, sadly again, cannot say all (I have heard the horror stories)—faculty members are here to support students’ efforts to apply the necessary pressure for the university to evolve. As I said regarding my own connection to U.Va., their blood is in this campus as well. And to them I say do not retreat, do not acquiesce. I say remember that no one is doing you a favor. If you are here, it is because you earned your way in and, one way or another, are paying for this spot you’ve earned. Act accordingly.

Those keeping up with the numbers know that enrollments have increased at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). I believe this is because African American students have begun to act like savvy customers and are weighing the resource benefits of predominately white institutions (PWIs) against the indifference and the overt and covert racial aggression they often endure there. (I once explained to a colleague, who responded incredulously, that AU had developed a reputation among African American students as the racist university in D.C.) Some students are choosing what, to them, feels to be the less hostile, more nurturing educational environments. Wonderful news for HBCUs, but what does it mean for those of us at AU and similar institutions?

If we—as students and faculty of color—depart, which is wholly within our right, we are surrendering space that will not hurt the university financially. There are long ledgers filled with the of names of people who would eagerly fill in our absence. And as the most recent election showed us, there are millions who support the American erasure project that has and currently continues to target us in the most conspicuous ways in the post-Obama era. In some instances, resistance looks like staying where you are—in the spaces you value though they may not fully value you—and applying the unique pressures you can as one within.

  Photo by Alexis Arnold

Photo by Alexis Arnold

Though I never wanted to accept it, my mother—who worked as the chief-of staff for the mayor of Newark, New Jersey—always told me that change in government, in any institution, does not result from outside pressure alone, that penetration is necessary. And that is what “people of color” have done at PWI institutions. We have penetrated—not as sacrifices (there was something here we valued, desired), but nonetheless we are here and we are charged with doing what we can, for those who will follow us, to dismantle this gauntlet we are currently passing through. That is vexing and exhausting physical, intellectual and emotional labor. (I was so tired last academic year.) But I cannot pretend I do not see any impact from my and other faculty’s efforts, or the impact of the students’ fight for accountability.

One of the blessings of working in an educational environment is being able to see how successive generations of students make your classes and the university at-large their own. And as we ride out the waves of corporate education in America, I like to remind students that their college experience is not what the university is willing to or can comfortably sell them. The experience is what they are willing to demand for their money. And thus they should be demanding. If you are attending a university, you are there to be recognized and considered, to be invested in just as you are investing your presence in the university.

It does weigh on me that so many students “of color” graduate from AU and other PWIs with the same sour taste in their mouths that I left U.Va. with over a decade ago. But a decade is not a considerable amount of time—despite the rate at which technology has evolved around us; despite the naïve assumption that millennials are not racist or sexist or homophobic like their parents and grandparents. I saw so many young faces in the angry mob that flamed its way through the U.Va. campus that Friday night. I know many of them are the same age as the students I teach here. And whatever our university administrations, colleagues or classmates do not understand about that ominous and urgent reality, we have to—for our own sanity and safety—continue to make them see.

I sent the following message to my literature department colleagues two days after the 2016 presidential election. Almost a year has elapsed, and while I wrote it with few to no expectations, the conversations initiated, and changes I have seen in my department make me feel it was worth the risk.

Let me begin by stating that my intent in this message is to seek guidance and not to indict.

I find the inconsistency of the university’s values weighing heavily on me today. I can imagine that for many of you, many of our students, this may be the first moment—or first in some time—that you feel the threat of The State affecting political or physical harm upon you or those you care for. This seems to be reinforced by the university’s broad efforts to offer guidance and counseling to those unsettled by the election results. I cannot read those e-mails without thinking about all the times in the last four years when news of African-American citizens being unlawfully gunned down (often in states carried by Donald Trump voters) seemed to register no acknowledgment nor response from the university. Or the department.

I do not know how many of you have noticed my door. Being the office closest to the bathrooms and the department office, I think it is hard to miss. My door is plastered with articles concerning police violence and hate crimes against African-Americans. Claudia Rankine asked me about my door when she came to visit a year or more ago. I explained to her that, for the most part, it feels as though I am the only one here seeing and feeling these things, and I wanted to attempt to force it upon my colleagues’ eyes. I have not done it for sympathy as, being one of the few ethnic minorities in our department, one learns to become emotionally self-sufficient. But I was, and am still, livid over the response from Vice Provost about the Claudia Rankine event—that she enjoyed it and “that she could have listened to Claudia all night.” The dialogue around racial aggression and State violence against African-American people is not a casual, enjoyable one for me. It is one that rarely even happens on my own conceptual terms as an African-American. It is not something that is only urgent or timely when Claudia Rankine is in town with her book that (and I do not mean this as a critique) engages this subject in a matter that is gentle to the psyches and sensibilities of people who think themselves “white.”

So while my door has been open to many of you who want to talk through your own vexation with the values “white” people expressed via their votes on Tuesday (one of you even popped in to do so as I was writing this letter), I have to remind you that for the last two days I have woken up “black” in America—under the un-set sun of “white” supremacy. The view from the bottom has not changed for myself and many others. The reality illustrated on my door was the same before the election as it is today. And I wish I felt like the university understood that. I wish I felt that more of you understood that. Unfortunately—and, again, this is not an indictment—I do not feel that way, and I spend a lot of my time inside my own feelings wondering if there is a way to make the inverse true.

Tomorrow, I will be outside when the Westboro Baptist Church comes to “protest” AU’s support of trans and gender non-conforming students. I support those of you who are queer. I support those of you who may have undocumented family members or loved ones. I support those of you who feel underrepresented. Emotionally and physically, I try to show up. That is a big part of allyship—challenging yourself to show up and to see. The feeling of being unseen at American University, though, is very real. And days such as these only remind me how deeply it permeates this social and intellectual environment we share.

With respect and hope